The wind had blown bad weather down from the north, and fine rain hung in the late autumnal air. Dirty clouds scudded across a slate grey sky where a single red kite wheeled on the shoulders of the wind, its mewling cry plaintive as a cat’s. I drew my cloak closer around my body and leaned into the gusts, damp strands of hair that had come loose from my long braid whipping across my face.
I stood alone on the wall-walk of the fortress of Din Cadan. Before me stretched the plain of what would one day be called the Somerset Levels, stained a colorless grey by the wintry light. Smoke, from the small farmsteads that dotted the plain right as far as the dark line of the distant forest edge, curled up to be snatched by the cruel north wind. Beyond the forest, the hump of Glastonbury Tor rose out of the flat landscape, the expanse of watery marshes that surrounded it here in the fifth century hidden from view.
Once again, as I’d been doing every day, I’d come up here to be alone. To think. God alone knew how much I needed to think, and this was one of the only places within the fortress I could do it by myself.
I narrowed my eyes, staring out across the plain toward the Tor, my jumbled thoughts turning to how that far-off, marsh-encircled hill might mark the way back to my own world if I so chose. Ten months ago, I’d gone there with Arthur, my husband and my king. He’d taken me because he loved me too much to ask me to stay with him, and, as I’d hoped, a portal in time had opened. Presented with the choice I’d needed, between returning to my life as Gwen the librarian or remaining with the man I loved, I’d been able to choose to stay. But events had moved on since then, and now I no longer felt so sure of my decision.
Now I didn’t have just me to think of. I had my baby son.
The bitter wind made my eyes water. I put a hand up and brushed back my hair, drawing the hood of my fur-lined cloak further forward. If I looked to left or right, I’d see my husband’s armed warriors on sentry duty, stamping their feet to stave off the cold, wrapped up tighter than I was. They were used to seeing me up here and no longer came to ask if I needed anything. I was their queen, and they respected and perhaps loved me, but it hadn’t taken them long to work out that I wanted to be alone.
A gust of rain spattered across my face. Finally defeated by the weather, I turned around. Hunching my shoulders, I stared up the slope at the buildings, clustering like barnacles on an upturned boat, that occupied the fortress of Din Cadan. On the highest point, the whale-like hump of the Great Hall, its thatched roof dark with age, rose above the smaller buildings, as though some spring high tide had deposited it there.
Scattered across the hilltop lay houses and huts, barns and byres, pig pens and vegetable patches in a glorious hotchpotch of life. Warhorses grazed in small, fenced paddocks, pigs rooted in the muddy fields where vegetable crops had already been brought in, and smoke rose from a myriad of rooftops as dark as the Hall’s.
One day, long in the future, this windy hilltop fortress would become known as South Cadbury Castle. Scholars would dig it up and argue about whether it could ever have been King Arthur’s stronghold. Only I knew that was true.
The sharp tang of the woodsmoke, the damp earthiness of the ground, the underlying aroma of the animals and middens, and the scent of the mizzling rain, filled the air. Voices carried from amongst the buildings: men called to one another, a boy whistled for his dog, two women harangued each other in a shouting match, and in the byre the cows waiting to be milked lowed their impatience.
This was the place I’d called home for a year, the place I’d come to love. Yet now my own doubt hung like a funeral shroud over everything.
A wagonload of brushwood creaked in through the main gates, swaying precariously even though roped down. In the courtyard in front of the Great Hall, in defiance of the rain, they were preparing a bonfire for the harvest feast of Samhain that would begin this evening at sunset. My friend Merlin, who apart from Arthur was the only one who knew of my other-worldly origin, had explained there would be a great fire again, as at the spring feast of Beltane, and after that all of us would have to stay shut inside. Tonight, the dead could walk again on this curious mix of harvest festival and Hallowe’en.
I’d been standing here long enough. In the west, hidden by the banks of cloud, the sun must be nearing its rest, and Samhain would begin soon. Not that I believed the dead could really walk. I descended the wooden steps to the foot of the wide earthen bank that supported the outer wall of the fortress. The short grass, wet from the rain blowing across the hilltop, soaked into the hem of my gown as I headed uphill toward the Great Hall.
A pall of foreboding enveloped me, the nearer I drew.
In front of the Hall, men were unloading the brushwood from the wagon and stacking it onto the pyramidal bonfire with the help of half a dozen eager boys. I recognized one of them, who seemed to be getting very much in the way of the adults, as Arthur’s seven-year-old illegitimate son, Llacheu. He spotted me as I rounded the corner of the stable block and, abandoning his self-appointed chore, came running to meet me.
“Gwen!” He fell in by my side. “Look how big the bonfire is. It’s going to make a huge blaze.” Normally his enthusiasm would rub off on me, but today, as yesterday and the day before and the day before that, I wasn’t in the mood.